16.02.07, Fulk, An Introductory Grammar of Old English

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Jonathan Davis-Secord

The Medieval Review 16.02.07

Fulk, R. D. An Introductory Grammar of Old English with an Anthology of Readings. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 463: MRTS Texts for Teaching, 8. Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2014. pp. xii, 332. ISBN: 978-0-86698-514-7 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Davis-Secord
University of New Mexico

The study of Old English must be experiencing a sort of renaissance, to judge from the number of textbooks that have reached print in the past fifteen years. Considering only full grammars, one finds original contributions to the field from Hogg, Baker, Hazenfratz and Jambeck, Smith, and McGillivray, while Mitchell and Robinson's Guide maintains its presence with an eighth edition. [1] The student of Old English has a surfeit of options perhaps unparalleled in the history of the discipline. Expressing similar sentiments in his 2007 survey of many of these publications, Andrew Scheil concluded that "[c]learly something is in the air." [2] And now, another giant has breathed that air: R. D. Fulk, an eminent figure in the field of Anglo-Saxon studies, adds his own textbook, An Introductory Grammar of Old English, demonstrating once again his deep command of the philological details and history of Old English.

An Introductory Grammar presents a rigorous, philological approach to Old English with great clarity and an eye toward modern pedagogy, even going so far as to pair with a website for additional materials, including printable inflection charts. [3] The organization of the textbook itself implements an important pedagogical method: while still covering every possible philological and orthographic wrinkle, it graduates the material, spreading it through many chapters and steadily increasing the difficulty of the accompanying readings to match that progression. For example, chapter 2 covers masculine a-stem nouns, but the full account of the various types of nouns only reaches completion with i- and u-stem nouns in chapter 13. Similarly, chapter 3 introduces verbs and the distinction between strong and weak types, and every subsequent chapter covers another element of the verbal system--all the way until the final chapter, chapter 21. This graduated presentation of the complexities of Old English is wonderful and most likely necessary for many current students, who could be overwhelmed by the "data dump" style of collecting all possible information on a major grammatical class into a single chapter. Some previous textbooks have also followed this practice in one way or another, [4] but Fulk's Introductory Grammar cuts things into smaller portions than most, with its twenty-one chapters and systematic, numbered paragraphs.

This graduated organization in no way waters down the content or glosses over any details. For example, chapter 2 explains Anglo-Frisian Brightening (a partial cause of the alternation of æ and a in words such as dæg) immediately following the first introduction of noun paradigms (§29). Not only is Fulk not shy in using the traditional, abstruse-sounding name, but the explanation is full and rigorous, describing the linguistic history of the change and delineating precisely the linguistic environments where the effect is found, prevented, and reversed. Similarly, Fulk's presentation of strong verbs covers basic patterns, subtypes, Verner's law, breaking, contraction, and more, sprinkled throughout various chapters. The treatment of metathesis on page 62 also well illustrates Fulk's precision and completeness: rather than relegate it to a terse appendix, he fully addresses the issue in the main text, making analogies to words such as Modern English ask, in order to explain the seeming irregularity of verbs such as birnan and berstan. Fulk also gradually and systematically introduces characteristic spelling variations over the course of several chapters. He forthrightly explains the orthographic variety of Old English, so often frustrating for students and so equally often ignored or down-played by many other textbooks. Perhaps as helpfully, Fulk normalizes the spelling in the translation passages accompanying the early chapters, allowing readers to concentrate on the grammar and syntax before dealing with the irregularity of the original spelling.

Beginning with chapter 9, the readings at the end of each chapter are taken from the Old English Apollonius of Tyre, a choice that one might consider inspired. Apollonius provides a relatively long-running plot in narrative prose, a type of text that is difficult to come by elsewhere but that is supremely helpful for new students on several levels. First, students often do well with narratives, since they can again concentrate on the grammar and syntax rather than also struggle with the content, as they might with Alfredian prose, for example. Second, since the text is long enough to be broken up into many installments, the students can develop familiarity with its grammatical and syntactic predilections; in other words, students "get the hang" of the text over many chapters and are not serially dunked into a different text and/or genre with each chapter. Moreover, Apollonius is a relatively neglected text, and its presence here may lead to expanded interest in it. More standardly "canonical" texts, such as The Wanderer, Dream of the Rood, and Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, appear in the Anthology section along with representative texts such as passages from the Old English Bede and Orosius, Exeter Book riddles, and Soul and Body II.

Fulk's method of annotating translation passages, both at chapter ends and in the Anthology section, differs from other recent grammars in important ways. Rather than supply complete information for the chapter readings, the annotations following each reading parse some but not all words in the passage, giving grammatical information but almost never meaning. This sets Fulk's Introductory Grammar apart from Hazenfratz and Jambeck's textbook, which supplies humongous, full vocabulary lists after each translation passage, and Baker's online anthology, which parses and fully translates almost every word through hyperlinks. Fulk's approach thus incorporates a subtle incentive to learn vocabulary more actively; while the annotations help with grammatical forms, the reader must either memorize meanings or continually flip to the glossary (which is of course impressively full). The Anthology readings have notes, but not on the same page with the main text. These notes cover the expected materials, including editorial emendations, historical background, and grammatical and syntactic explanations (sometimes with full translation suggestions). Nonetheless, the reader is initially confronted with unmediated Old English, allowing an interaction with the original texts with very few filters imposed (the texts are punctuated, capitalized, and lineated according to modern practice). That presentation may be intimidating in that it provides no immediate support, but it prepares students for real study of texts in critical editions.

The three appendices comprise another strength of Fulk's Introductory Grammar, treating sound changes, dialects, and poetic diction. The germane features of several of the sound changes (such as Grimm's and Verner's Laws) appear in the main text as well, but complete accounts appear in the appendix, thus reserving them for the truly motivated student willing to confront material of the highest complexity. The second appendix, on dialects of Old English, is a particularly welcome addition, since the material is difficult to access normally. In it, Fulk sets out the features specific to each dialect and provides illustrative examples. The third appendix covers poetic diction, beginning with specialized vocabulary and moving through variation, compounding, contrast, and litotes before ending with a concise description of meter. As with the main text, these appendices explain advanced topics in an admirably clear and effective manner.

Fulk has produced an excellent textbook, but one should take care in assigning it. As the preface notes, this textbook is most appropriate for "graduate and advanced undergraduate students," and that is no empty caveat (viii). Indeed, although Baker's and Hazenfratz and Jambeck's textbooks serve as comparands above, those comparison are somewhat unfair. Those textbooks--and McGillivray's and others like them--target students not only with no prior exposure to Old English but also probably not even to formal grammar. Fulk's Introductory Grammar is not for those students. Its treatment of front mutation (§74) reveals as much: rather than begin with examples from Modern English (say, mouse/mice and goose/geese) to illustrate and ground the sound change, a paragraph on Proto-Germanic diphthongs precedes the explanation. Students truly new to language study would probably not do well with this method, but the right students with a solid linguistics background and appropriate motivation will happily welcome this book. Fulk's Introductory Grammar then is "introductory" in that it begins from scratch assuming good linguistic skills but no knowledge of the details of Old English or its prehistory. Consequently, it fills the gap between the truly introductory grammars (Baker, Hazenfratz and Jambeck, McGillivray) and full reference grammars (Campbell, Hogg, Hogg and Fulk). [5] The combination of deep philological rigor and a graduated presentation allows the volume to perform a role unique among Old English textbooks. Ultimately, Fulk's Introductory Grammar will be perfect for some students and works to keep alive the philologically informed knowledge of Old English that is so hard to come by today.



1. Richard Hogg, An Introduction to Old English, 2nd ed., revised by Rhona Alcorn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012); Peter S. Baker, Introduction to Old English, 3rd ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Robert Hasenfratz and Thomas Jambeck, Reading Old English: A Primer and First Reader, rev. ed. (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2011); Jeremy J. Smith, Old English: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Murray McGillivray, A Gentle Introduction to Old English (Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2011); and Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 8th ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). One can also find other introductory volumes, such as Carol Hough and John Corbett, Beginning Old English (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).

2. Andrew Scheil, "Old English Textbooks and the 21st Century: A Review of Recent Publications," Old English Newsletter 40, no. 3 (2007): 47-59 at 47.


4. For example, Baker's Introduction covers basic grammatical concepts in its third chapter before moving to the Old English forms, and Hazenfratz and Jambeck's Reading Old English piece-meals nouns and verbs over several chapters.

5. Alistair Campbell, Old English Grammar, reprinted with corrections (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); Richard M. Hogg, A Grammar of Old English, Volume 1: Phonology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992); and Richard M. Hogg and R. D. Fulk, A Grammar of Old English, Volume 2: Morphology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

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